It took 6 years to achieve, 4 and a half more than Elon Musk had originally planned, and 500 people to make it happen.
It is difficult to believe that only weeks before, an air force satellite and NASA experiments were lost during the third attempted launch by SpaceX when a malfunction caused the first and second stages to bump into each other damaging the rocket and its engine.
Everyone involved was mentally and physically exhausted as Musk inspired his Falcon 1 engineers to dig even deeper and work around the clock for the next 6 weeks to achieve what had been described as ‘possibly the final SpaceX launch’. This was because Elon Musk was out of cash and having to borrow to pay the rent.
Multimillionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk had invested his entire $180m proceeds from the sale of Paypal into SpaceX, electric car maker Tesla and solar energy service provider SolarCity. Many described Musk as reckless in investing everything he had, with many of his family and closest friends trying in vain to talk him out of it. He felt that what he was doing was right. With SpaceX he was clear on providing a low cost re-usable replacement for the retiring space shuttle fleet. He also had another team of engineers back at his headquarters working on Falcon 9 while the Falcon 1 engineers were working in the Pacific. This clarity of purpose is what drives him. Not only did he have problems at SpaceX, but Tesla was also running out of cash.
All entrepreneurs have to get through this challenging start-up phase in their company. Many run out of cash before they develop viable products that make the required levels of sales and do not make it through. Musk’s situation was made far more difficult because he didn’t have just one company he was taking through start-up, but two companies and each one needed significant amounts of cash at the same time. With his pride on the line, running the risk of losing everything, he managed to borrow and raise sufficient funds to keep both Tesla and SpaceX going. Tesla was burning US$4m a month and Musk was struggling to pay the wages at SpaceX. He knew that he would need a cash injection before the end of 2008. While many tried to convince him to focus on just one of his ventures, Musk remained steadfastly on course. On 23 December 2008, SpaceX was awarded a $1.6b US government contract for 12 flights to supply the international space station. Musk had made it through what would become one of his major obstacles.
SpaceX has flown 31 successful missions over 6 years, achieving 67% success in recovering the rocket’s first stage for reuse – something no-one else has ever done.
What is Grit?
Musk exhibits the ‘grit’, that psychologist Angela Duckworth describes exists in all successful entrepreneurs. Entrepreneurs like Musk persevere and do not abandon tasks even in the face of the biggest obstacles, like running out of cash. Musk summarises it perfectly in his now famous quote, ‘No. I don’t give up. I’d have to be dead or completely incapacitated.’
Musk is driven by the vision of leaving the world for his grandchildren in a much better place. A dependence on oil as an energy source has no place in his world, and he sees mankind living on Mars. This vision drives his every decision, the people he works with, and the way he spends his time. He challenges everything and everyone to break new ground – to innovate. Innovation is the only way he sees to achieve his goal of a 10-fold improvement in the cost and reliability of access to space. To achieve his vision, Musk is prepared to do whatever it takes. He says, ‘when something is important enough, even if the odds are against you, you should still do it.’
Entrepreneurs with grit are more likely to pick themselves up from failure, analyse what needs to change, and improve. Musk has proven not only to have mastered this by turning a dismal third launch failure into success for the Falcon 1 rocket just 6 weeks later. This takes grit. He also instills in his people that ‘failure is an option here. If things are not failing, you are not innovating enough.’
Entrepreneurs with grit have the mindset that they view every effort as making them smarter. They embrace challenges, persist in the face of setbacks, see effort as the pathway to mastery, learn from criticism and find lessons and inspiration in the success of others. Success comes from effort and practice – this is the mindset any successful entrepreneur needs for growth. Musk looks into what drives a person before taking them on as a new employee. He rejects those with a strong desire to look smart or have a hunger for seeking approval. No matter how great their skills are, they do not have the growth mindset he needs to achieve his vision.
Entrepreneurs with grit love learning. They embrace challenges and have confidence in their ability to achieve and become happy through their achievements. When Musk started SpaceX he had no experience in the space industry. Experts in this tough, unforgiving space industry had seen other amateurs full of enthusiasm and money fail before and saw Elon Musk and SpaceX as no different. But Musk is different because he has an exceptional ability to learn quickly and be able to apply this knowledge effectively to solve problems in new and innovative ways. As his knowledge increased so did his confidence and those of the people at SpaceX. He had the stamina to work really hard for 6 years to achieve his successful Falcon 1 launch on his fourth attempt. By doing so he took that the first step towards making his future vision a reality.
What can entrepreneurs learn from Elon Musk?
Two things – grit and vision.
To build something really worthwhile, you need ‘grit’. And this means that you have the abilities to
As well as grit, you need the vision that drives every decision you make, who you choose to work with, and how you spend your precious time in this world.
‘I would like to die on Mars, Just not on impact.’
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Michael posts on topics relating to organisational growth and excellence
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